Lessons For Substance Abuse Treatment From HOPE Probation

It is well known that many individuals within criminal justice populations have serious substance use problems. It is common for many of the 5 million offenders on probation and parole to return to their alcohol and drug use, violate the terms of their community supervision by their continued substance use, and reengage in criminal behavior that lands them in prison, often for long and expensive terms of incarceration. At a time when the country is seeking new and better ways to reduce prison costs and prison populations, an entirely new strategy with a focus on high-risk offenders on probation and parole has emerged. This strategy holds great promise of reducing prisons populations while promoting recovery and reducing crime. It is also possible that substance abuse treatment programs with non-criminal populations will find aspects of the strategy useful.

Conceived and established first in Honolulu as Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement, HOPE is a strategy to promote positive change. The premise is that clearly stated, easily understood rules are more readily followed by offenders if any rule violation results in immediate and serious consequences. In the case of HOPE, the consequence of rule violation is a few days in jail. In most probation settings offenders are willing to roll the dice with repeated violations of probation when the consequences are delayed and uncertain, but they are far less likely to risk going to jail today even for a single violation, as is the case when offenders are in the HOPE program.

HOPE provides swift, certain, consistent, and proportionate consequences for misbehavior in an environment of caring support. That translates into a system that is seen as fair, both in perception and in reality, and that increases buy-in for those under supervision. HOPE is not meant to be a substitute for any other supervisory strategy (e.g., evidence-based principles for recidivism reduction) but rather is meant to complement those efforts and make them work more effectively. Offenders enrolled in the HOPE program have markedly reduced drug use and increased compliance with the other conditions of community release.

In HOPE, drug-involved offenders are subject to frequent random drug testing, rather than the typical drug testing done on standard probation, only at the time of scheduled meetings with probation officers. Failure to abstain from drugs or failure to show up for random drug testing always results in a brief jail sanction, usually 2 to 15 days, depending on the nature and severity of the offense. Upon placement in HOPE at a Warning Hearing, probationers are encouraged to succeed, and are fully informed of the length of the jail sanctions that will be imposed for each type of violation. They are assured of the certainty and speed with which the sanctions will be applied. Sanctions are applied consistently and impartially to ensure fairness for all. Substance abuse treatment is available to all offenders who want it and to those who demonstrate a need for treatment through “behavioral triage.” Offenders who test positive for drugs two or more times in short order with jail sanctions are referred for a substance abuse assessment and instructed to follow any recommended treatment. For this reason, offenders in HOPE succeed in treatment—because they are the offenders in most need and are supported by the leverage provided by the court to help them complete treatment.

A randomized control trial compared offenders randomly assigned to HOPE Probation and a control group assigned to probation-as-usual. Compared to offenders on probation-as-usual, at one-year follow-up, HOPE offenders were:

• 55% less likely to be arrested for a new crime;
• 72% less likely to test positive for illegal drugs;
• 61% less likely to skip appointments with their supervisory officer; and
• 53% less likely to have their probation revoked.

As a result of these impressive findings, new strategies based on the HOPE strategy are spreading across the country, not only among not those working in probation but also in parole, pretrial, and even prison populations. To assist practitioners in their work, a new report titled “State of the Art of HOPE Probation” identifies the crucial elements of the HOPE strategy and how they fit into a comprehensive monitoring system. Specifically, it defines the essential elements of the HOPE strategy and additional recommended, but not essential, elements that enhance HOPE and ensure its success. It describes appropriate sanctions used for non-compliance, the circumstances under which offenders are referred to treatment and to drug court, and when probation is revoked.

HOPE is not suitable for every offender under community supervision; however, it is for the high-risk, high-need offenders, those most likely to fail in community supervision and end up in prison, often for a long time. HOPE helps these higher-risk offenders, including those specifically with serious substance use problems, to be successful in making changes in their lives, remain drug-free, and not return to prison.

In treatment settings outside the criminal justice system, several concepts are relevant. One is frequent, random testing of individuals in treatment with quickly available results; another is a system of consequences that are agreed upon and contracted for at the time of intake (e.g., notification of an employer, family, or parent); and third, the emphasis by the program of no use of alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs of abuse.

This article is based on the “State of the Art of HOPE Probation”. Readers are strongly encouraged to read the full report and related materials for a detailed description of HOPE.